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Fenton Stanley Ridgeway III hunches over a stack of Maryland-style blue crabs at Riggins Crabhouse in Lantana. He's dismantling the crabs like a machine: His thick fingers look impossibly nimble as they dance across the shells, plucking out meat from the narrow clusters and delivering it to his mouth with controlled speed.
To see him at work is profound. Ridgeway — father of my close childhood friend Fenton the Fourth — grew up in Maryland eating blue crabs and is an expert at opening them. We came to Riggins Crabhouse, a 22-year-old restaurant and seafood market near I-95, because it's supposedly the closest to actual Maryland-style crabs around.
I ask him to show me how he makes eating the hard-shelled crabs look so easy, so he gives me a demonstration. He scoops up a fresh steamed blue crab, its shell now bright red and caked in Old Bay seasoning, and turns it over. "This is the apron," he says, pointing to a T-shaped bit of shell wedged into the crab's belly. He slips a paring knife — one he brought from home — underneath the apron and peels it back. With a flick of his wrist, the top of the shell snaps off, exposing the crab's multilayer interior.
The inside of the crab looks like a Jackson Pollock painting — a mess of yellow, gray, and brown with no discernible meat in sight. Again, Ridgeway makes it seem easy. "These gray-looking fingers are the lungs. Don't eat those. They'll make you sick." He plucks the lungs out and discards them in a wooden bowl. "The yellow stuff is the mustard. Some people like to eat that. I don't."
I try the mustard, also known as the crab's hepatopancreas, a digestive gland. It's deep, briny, and pungent. I love it straight away.
From there, Ridgeway uses his paring knife to cut the crab in half down the middle, revealing two walled sections of shell called clusters. Using the knife, he cuts off each of the crab's small legs and sucks any meat hanging off the ends. The large legs with a claw he puts aside. "I eat those all at the end," he says. Those plump fingers shoot back to life, scavenging lumps of sweet meat from each of the cluster's papery hollows. I try to echo his motions, but the wimpy strands I retrieve have flecks of shell inside.
I guess I just need more practice.
Ridgeway has had plenty. In the car ride to Riggins, he told me countless stories about his crabbing days in and around Chesapeake Bay and how his father, also an expert at eating crabs, used to leverage his skills in bets. "My dad could open crabs faster than anyone," he says. "There was this one time that his friends complained about how hard it is to eat crabs, so he bet them if he could keep enough meat in front of them so they would never have to stop eating, they would have to pick up the tab. He won that bet pretty easily."
Ridgeway also schools me on the ins and outs of finding good crabs. There's a way to tell if a crab has been recooked. "The meat tastes burnt if they're not steamed to order," he explains. Blue crabs should be steamed in beer — not boiled — to keep the meat from going mushy. And the trademark Old Bay seasoning he loves so much (a timeless blend of spices including celery salt, cloves, and paprika) must be liberally applied before the crabs are cooked. That, he says, is one of the reasons he despises a Fort Lauderdale crab institution, Rustic Inn. "They give you a shaker to put the Old Bay on instead of letting it cook into the crab," he gripes.
Ridgeway also recommends not using the trademark wooden mallets they pass out at crab shacks throughout South Florida. The mallets just end up getting bits of shell in the meat. Still, all I could hear during my meal at Riggins was the pounding of those mallets. All around the restaurant, folks tear into Maryland-style and garlic crabs by the dozen, hammering away on tables covered with butcher's paper. The rest of the dim, aged-looking crab house fits the theme. It's covered with nautical knickknacks and memorabilia from the Chesapeake. Even the name — Riggins — suggests a connection to Washington Redskins running back and Hall of Famer John Riggins, an inveterate Maryland hero (despite having no tie to the restaurant itself).
Unfortunately, the semiauthentic vibe takes on a pretty unappealing light in the old restaurant. The tables, small and cramped, are not ideal for eating food this messy in such close proximity to your dining companions. A bright, blue mural of Florida ocean life on one wall is mirrored by actual fish tanks mounted inside picture frames on another. Every last one of those surfaces — including the brown carpeting — sports a sheen of spattered crab guts.